Why Creativity? The Reason Behind My Yearlong Challenge

When I kicked off my yearlong creativity challenge, I talked about the mind-numbing exhaustion my life was becoming. But I didn’t really address the question of why creativity? And why now? And honestly, on days when I’m scrambling to get something done to fulfill my self-imposed challenge, I kind of wonder the same thing. What the hell am I trying to accomplish here anyway? It’s hard for me to explain why creativity exactly, but I have a pretty good grasp of why now, so I’ll begin there.

My job is by turns amazing and the absolute worst. On the days when I have put my everything into a brand strategy or content campaign and the client loves the end result, I am elated. I feel exhausted, but accomplished. When one of the dozen regular doggie visitors graces our office with their fluffy presence, I feel lucky. But then there are the days when it seems like nothing I do can satisfy a client’s demands or when seven hours of meetings overwhelms my introverted soul. On those days, I slink home and curl up on the couch or fall into bed thinking, this is not what I was made to do.

In the last few months, the balance between uplifting days and draining ones has tilted out of whack. It’s my own fault really, I’m too good at what I do (#humblebrag). The result is more responsibility, more meetings, and bigger projects. Which, on the one hand, is exciting. I’ve always been a straight-A, gold star type and having my hard work recognized is validating. But I’ve also begun to suspect that this high-achieving perfectionism is a direct result of my anxiety and is just a socially acceptable way of being a control freak.

But the true tipping point was the day after my longtime manager and mentor left to start her own consulting company. For the first time in two years, she wasn’t there to listen to, support, and champion me. Instead, our team of four was now a team of three…and they were looking to me to be the person that supports and champions them. It’s like when you become a parent and you get overwhelmed so you start looking around for an adult to help you but you realize you’re the adult in this situation and basically everyone involved is fucked.

That’s all easy enough to explain and understand. But why I thought creativity would be the way out of this feeling is a little more nebulous. In part, the answer is “I honestly have no idea, actually.” My brain decided one day to spit out the question “Can creativity save my life?” and I was all, “I don’t know, can it? Let’s find out!” I suspect though that this random question came from a part of my subconscious that knows what it’s talking about. After all, there are about a million books on the market touting the healing/stress-relieving powers of creating art.

But after painting, knitting, writing, coloring, and drawing every day for over a month now, I’ve realized that there’s more to it than that: Creativity is something I do entirely for myself. Even if I sell my paintings, give away the crafts I make, or let others read my words, the creative process is for me alone. I don’t make these things with others in mind. Instead, they are moments of pure curiosity: what if I put this color here or let this character loose in that story world? What if I was utterly selfish for just a little while? Giving myself permission to do that sometimes makes me feel guilty. I should be doing something else. Something more productive, healthy, exciting, better. But these moments and the pieces that come out of them are the ultimate middle finger to “should”. And maybe after 365 middle fingers, I’ll be able to break out of the all shoulds that keep me trapped.

Can creativity save my life? I don’t know, but it’s worth a try.

Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo Part 1: To Write or Not to Write

There’s a chill in the air in Georgia. Not enough to turn on the heat, but enough to turn off the A/C and break out the boots. It’s finally fall. All around me, people are excited: sweaters! football! hot coffee! Halloween! Pumpkin Spice EVERYTHING! And, call me basic, but I’m excited too. While I love the beach, and my birthday makes spring special, fall is definitely my favorite season. The views are prettier, the weather is perfect, the food is amazing, and the festivities are the best. Halloween decorations, Thanksgiving food, and the holiest of holy holidays for creatives: NaNoWriMo.

That’s right people, this is not a drill! NaNoWriMo is now less than a month away. Let the wild PrepTober begin!

Okay, for those of you who are wondering whether I had a stroke and lost my grasp on language, let me explain. National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo is an annual event that challenges participants to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days during November. Thousands of people participate and it’s grown every year since it first started in 1999 with just 21 writers. There’s a lot of passion about NaNo, both for and against. Many writers love the frenzied creativity and comradery it inspires and the fact that it forces you to do the one thing a writer must do: write. Others are less than enthusiastic about the thousands of super-rough amateur first drafts it generates and the idea that a “real” novel can be written in so short a time.

I fall firmly on the love side of the NaNo debate. It’s meant to be fun and motivational and if you view it in this light, it’s an incredible way to jumpstart your creativity even if (or especially if) you don’t think of yourself as a writer. It’s a whole 30 days of thousands of people collectively screaming, “you can do it!” What’s not to love?

Well, if you view it as a pressure-filled competition against yourself, the clock, or your fellow writers, maybe not. And for that reason, NaNo isn’t for everyone. So if you’re on the fence about whether to participate or not, here are some links to help you decide:

Are you planning to participate in NaNoWriMo this year? Let me know in the comments! And if you’re looking for a writing buddy, include your WriMo name.

Confession: I Hate Morning Pages

I have a confession. One that may be wildly unpopular, but here it is: I hate morning pages.

If you spend any time online in creative spaces, you’re likely to stumble on at least one blog post talking about the miracle of morning pages. They help cure creative blocks, jumpstart your writing and clear your mind. They’ve changed lives! Which is fantastic. Any tool that helps people open up to creativity is incredibly valuable. And they work for a lot of people. Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way introduced the concept 25 years ago and has amassed a devoted following consisting of everyday creatives and celebrities alike. Elizabeth Gilbert has said that without that book, there would be no Eat, Pray, Love and she’s written her own book on the creative process. The proof abounds. And yet…

Maybe it’s because I’m a night writer (which sounds really cool when I say it that way) or because I’m not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination. But despite several tries and many good intentions, I cannot get into morning pages. It sounds so simple: wake up, and before you do anything else, write in a notebook until you fill three pages. It doesn’t have to be creative writing or even cohesive in anyway. You could spend two of your three pages complaining about how you don’t know what to write and morning pages are stupid and it would still count. The goal isn’t “good” or productive writing, it’s to siphon off the crap floating around in your brain so you can access the juicy stuff underneath. The reason for doing it in the morning is so that your conscious, controlling mind doesn’t hijack the process. No getting distracted by to do lists or telling yourself a story, just word vomit onto three pages and move on with your day.

So what happened when I tried morning pages? Kind of nothing, actually. As in, I would wake up, sit down with my notebook, start writing and then realize ten minutes later that I’d been staring off into space thinking about absolutely nothing. It was a wonderful way to clear my head and if I’d been trying to meditate or teach myself to sleep with my eyes open,  it would have been a job well done. But words on pages? Not so much.

By contrast, I have for nearly my entire life, written at night. Scribbled journal entries, fragments of stories, dream journals, notes to friends. When the sky darkens, my brain releases its hold on critical thinking and just let’s go, leaving space for uncontrolled words to pour out. Which is exactly what “morning pages” are supposed to do. But for some reason, I keep coming across the advice to write first thing in the morning. Do not check Instagram, do not make coffee, do not pass go. Wake up, pick up pen, write. It’s like the people who say that  first thing in the morning is the best time to exercise. For everyone. Oh, you did your 10 mile run at 6pm instead of 6AM? Loser. You’re totally doing it wrong, you know.

This, of course, is nonsense. Just like any one-size-fits-all advice. I will never be part of the morning pages fan club. But damn do I love me some night writing. Ultimately, it comes down to what works for you. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of that. So consider this your reminder: you do you, morning, noon, or night.

BOOK REVIEW: Art & Soul Reloaded by Pam Grout

I believe in the power of books. And I especially believe that books have this wonderful power to find you when you need them most. They’ll be recommended by a friend, appear faceout in a store display or even serendipitously fall off a shelf in your path. All at the very moment when their message is most relevant to you. So it didn’t fully surprise me that a mere three days before I planned to start my yearlong creativity challenge, I stumbled on a book called Art & Soul Reloaded: A Yearlong Apprenticeship for Summoning the Muses and Reclaiming Your Bold, Audacious, Creative Side by Pam Grout. The fact that it had only been published a week earlier was a bit on the nose, but like I said, I believe in the power of books.


I haven’t yet used the book the way it was intended: reading a chapter each week and doing the accompanying activity or “Zumba for the Soul”. I was honestly too excited to take it so slowly and it was so readable that I plowed through it in less than a week, absorbing the inspiration like a sponge and using it as a springboard for my own challenge. But if you’re looking for a gentle way to jumpstart your creativity, I highly recommend this book.

Art & Soul Reloaded is above all stress and pretension free. It’s not trying to turn you into a gallery-worthy artist in a year. If anything, author Pam Grout is trying to get you to loosen up about this whole art thing. Stop putting so much pressure on yourself and just make stuff. Be a little silly. No seriously, loosen up. And if you’re a stymied artist or someone who describes themselves as “not that creative”, it’s great advice.

That being said, the activities in this book may not seem like “art” to a lot of people. A personal invocation of the muses? Dancing around your living room? How is that art? Well, that’s kind of the point. It’s not about whether some grand authority deems your photo booth self portrait “real art”. What matters it that it got you to think differently, to do something without worrying what anyone else might think, and to express yourself. And if that’s not art in and of itself, it certainly seeds the creative ground for your particular brand of art to flourish.

Bottom Line: Art & Soul Reloaded offers a low-barrier way to dedicate more time to fostering creativity. The time commitment is minimal and the artistic skill required is whatever you were born with or acquired over the years. The warm and supportive tone is motivating without being syrupy and the sense of possibility it leaves you with is enormous: exactly what you need if you don’t know how to get out of a creative rut. See what I mean about the power of books?

7 Lessons From a Week of Forced Creativity

It’s been just over a week since I kicked off my year-long creativity challenge and it’s been an interesting few days.. Projects have kicked off and completed and lessons are being learned. So here’s a quick rundown of 7 lessons I’ve learned in this first week:

  1. It’s the best part of my day.

There have definitely been a couple days when I’ve had to force myself to do something creative, just doing enough to check the box. But for the most part, my daily creative time has become something I look forward to and I even find myself daydreaming about what project I’ll work on when I get home from work.

  1. It’s the perfect way to learn something new.

Learning to knit has been on my to-do list for what seems like forever, and somehow I’ve never gotten around to figuring it out. Until now. (Thank you YouTube tutorials) With a whole year ahead of me, the possibilities for future hobbies and new skills is wide open.

  1. The shadow of social media is nearly impossible to resist.

Doing a different creative project every day was never part of the rules I established for this challenge, but documenting this process on Instagram means that I inevitably start to think about how my grid looks and if it’s getting too repetitive. Meaning that I’ve started to mix up which creative projects I do each day.

  1. Being creative is physical as well as mental.

A lot of inspirational writers will tell you that creativity is a muscle that needs to be exercised or else it atrophies. But there’s something to be said about the literal muscles involved in creating. The first day I started knitting, my hands felt so clumsy it was like I was wearing hockey gloves while trying to grip the needles. The Saturday I spent coloring one beautiful, intricate picture, I had to take frequent breaks to stretch my hands. As with running or yoga, these hobbies require a physical strength all their own.

  1. Creativity multiplies.

The rules of this challenge require me to do one creative act every day. But I’m finding that one project often turns into two, or three, or four. One night, I finished my project for the day and went to bed, only to wake up two hours later to write an email to myself detailing the new story idea that wouldn’t let me stay asleep. Once you open the doors, creativity finds a way to flow through into every aspect of your life, especially the areas that had previously been blocked (like my writing).

  1. Everyone wants to be creative.

The number one reaction I’ve gotten from friends and family since starting this challenge has been, “That’s so cool, I want to do that!” My boyfriend is posting along with me with his preferred mode of creativity (photography), other friends have started to think about how they would do a challenge of their own or how they can be more creative in their lives. Just like it multiplies in your own life, creativity likes to spread to everyone and anyone who’s willing to give it the time of day.

  1. Even when I’m not writing, I’m writing.

Writing and storytelling have always been my primary mode of creativity, my bread and butter. But as part of this challenge, I’ve focused less on it and conversely, it’s flowed a lot easier. Most days, I choose something visual or tactile as my daily project: coloring, sewing, knitting, painting. These mediums feel like a break for my brain because they’re such a contrast from my daily work and my personal writing. And maybe because the writing isn’t my top priority, the pressure isn’t there to make it good, or even to make it happen. No 1,000 word a day mandate, no outline or chapter that needs to be done. Instead, the words come when they’re ready and if they don’t, they don’t.

If you’d like to start your own creativity challenge or just follow along as I document mine, check me out on Instagram @coffeecupmuse and track your own progress at #creative365challenge.

Under Pressure: Learning to Release Creative Ambition

For me, writing is therapy. Whether it’s stream of consciousness unplugging in my journal or dreaming up a story to lose myself in, writing has always been an outlet for my anxious brain. But sometimes, I try to force my writing to be something that it’s not. Blame it on my fancy degree or ambitiousness, but either way, I occasionally imagine myself to be the next great literary genius. An ingenue creating insightful, heart-rending novels that earn rave reviews from critics and a plethora of prestigious awards. And for that to happen, I must write Great Literature. Meaningful literature with themes that are both universal and somehow revolutionary. Stories that have never been created before and characters that resonate so deeply with readers, they wonder if I’ve peered into their minds.

This is a really great way to stoke your ego, elevating your imaginary talent far above the hack jobs who are publishing less-than-world-changing work. It’s also a great way to beat yourself up because you’ll never be good enough to write that perfect story. It’s a great way to pretend that you’re writing. What it’s not, is a great way to actually write.

Whenever I start to think this way, often halfway through a first draft or round of editing, I get blocked and stop writing. Because for some reason, convincing yourself that you need to be the greatest writer on earth is not the best way to practice being the writer you actually are. It’s like believing you have to be perfect leaves no room for failing and doing the work that will help you learn to be better. Crazy, right?

And so I have to remind myself again and again that I love to write. Writing is fun. Creating is fun. This seems like a weird thing to have to remind yourself but I like to think I’m not the only creative person that has to occasionally repeat my personal mantra: No One Is Making You Do This. You Chose This. Ommmmm.

So much of being a creative person is letting go of the outcome. To be creative, you have to be in the moment. You have to deal with the words you’re writing, not the ones you wish you were. You have to focus on the clay in your hands, not the vase eventually baking in the kiln. Or else there is no story. The clay falls flat in your hands. The end result never materializes.

This is also probably the hardest lesson to learn and the one most in need of repeating. Because making art is like creating little worlds that we are the gods of. It is an incredible illusion of control. You are making the thing! You decide what it looks like, sounds like, smells like! Who is and is not a part of it. It feels like we should be in complete control. But so often we’re not. The muse doesn’t appear that day, the souffle falls flat, the talent we possess is not quite a match for our imagination. And it’s okay. It doesn’t feel like it, but it really is. We give everything we have today, and the next day, and the day after that. And little by little, the outcome appears.

Can Creativity Save My Life? A 365-Day Challenge

I came home from work exhausted for what felt like the thousandth day in a row. I wanted to go for a run or do some yoga, cook dinner, write a little bit and end my day with things I love. Instead, I collapsed on the couch, ate something forgettable and aimlessly stared at my phone until I could barely keep my eyes open, then went to bed. The next day was almost identical, as was the day after that.

And then, one morning as I blearily made coffee, a question nearly bowled me over: What if creativity could save my life?

It’s an odd question. It’s not as if I’m suffering from some sort of terminal condition that creativity might cure. My anxiety and depression is well managed and suicidal thoughts aren’t part of the occasional flares I experience.

Yet, the question felt entirely valid. Though my life might not be literally in danger, I am (like a lot of people) in danger of merely surviving each day rather than truly living. And while there are a lot of ways I could try to combat that, creativity seems like a natural fit.

To that end, starting September 1, 2017, I’m embarking on a 365-day creativity challenge. The rules are simple:

  1. Every day, I will perform some creative act: writing, painting, doodling, scribbling poetry, painting my nails, coloring, etc.
  2. It must be active, not passive. So as much as I love reading, it doesn’t count.
  3. It must not be work-related. This is purely self-driven.
  4. It does not have to be perfect and does not need to fulfill any other purpose. It’s all about the process, not the end product.
  5. I will document the journey on this blog and over on Instagram

That’s it! I’ve purposely kept the rules simple, knowing that I have a crazy-busy year ahead of me at work and this isn’t meant to be an added burden, despite calling it a challenge. If you’d like to infuse your own life with creativity, join me and share your own journey on Instagram using the hashtag #creative365challenge

A Lesson in Trust at a Paint and Sip Class

I resurfaced from my wine fog and leaned back, taking in the painting I’d just completed. It was…good. The skyline wasn’t recognizable as Atlanta and it looked totally different from the instructor’s example, but it was decent, even beautiful. At minimum, it far exceeded my expectations going into the night when I’d anxiously walked into the studio for a wine and painting night.

For years, I’d seen friends post pictures of their “I totally painted this and it doesn’t look awful!” moments at these classes. It was always something that sounded fun in theory, but that for one reason or another I’d never found the time to try it myself. Until my sweet boyfriend got me a gift certificate for Valentine’s Day. Months later, we finally signed up for a class and nervously showed up.

I had two concerns with these classes: 1) The one most people probably have: doubting whether your painting will actually be any good or even look like the thing it’s supposed to, and 2) One that’s probably unique to me: it wouldn’t feel like I’d really painted anything, just colored inside the lines.

The instructor took us through our paintings step by step, giving us directions on how to mix colors and hold the brush to get the intended effect. And at every step, I squinted at my painting, concerned that it didn’t look how it was supposed to. The water was too dark, the lines to stark, the colors not blended properly, and I wanted the sky to be blue like the real Starry Night and it was too purple and, and and…And at every step, the instructor would reassure us not to worry because everything would turn out just fine and we could take care of any mistakes in the next step.

Three hours and a half bottle of wine later, our expert guide had led us step-by-step to completed paintings. Each of them was as different as the signatures on them and they were all pretty good, actually.

The final product

So if you’re thinking about trying one of these classes yourself but have been held back by doubt, I encourage you to set the doubt aside for one night and go for it. And if that sounds too daunting, just remember: wine is encouraged.

From Apples to Peaches Part 2: Creative Dreams Come True

I always know it’s been another year when the magnolias start to bloom. The scent hits me first and I search the trees for those huge white blooms that greeted me when I first arrived in Atlanta. I remember driving into the city after two straight days in my car and two years of planning this move, and the city smelled like…flowers. Exhausted and emotionally drained, I briefly wondered if I might be having a stroke. The cities I knew smelled like hot garbage and urine, not perfume. But as I exited the highway into the shadows of the intown forest, the scent grew stronger and I spotted the magnolias dotting the trees like Christmas ornaments. They’ve since become my favorite flower; my first welcome to this city I’ve come to love.

Even to me, my first two months in Atlanta sound crazy. After two years of thinking about this move, you’d think I’d have a better plan in place. But I didn’t. I kept waiting for the practicalities to be settled, for the job applications to get a response, for the PhD programs to pan out. But in the end, nothing happened. And I determined that nothing would happen unless I did it myself. So I did. I took a ridiculous leap of faith and moved with no job, just a place to stay and enough savings to last two months. After that…well, I would cross that bridge when I came to it.

Blame it on southern hospitality or on the sheer ballsiness of my (nonexistent) plan, but the reaction I most often get when I tell this story is that what I did was brave. And maybe to those who “could never do something like that”, it is. But to me, it was pure survival. Despite all the artists and creatives that flock to New York every year looking to fulfill their dreams, I was suffocating. The struggle was oh so real and it left zero room for my creative dreams to flourish. I needed a place where I could breathe.

But for the first two months in Atlanta, things didn’t look any better than they had back in New York. The struggle was even more real with no money coming in and none of my usual support systems to lean on. I felt so ridiculously alone and so scared. And that didn’t exactly change overnight…but it kind of did. Just when my savings was about to run out, when the lease was almost up and I was about to reach that cliff of having nothing left to live on, I found a job. It was the only interview I’d gone on since I moved and with my bank account melting away, I probably would have taken it even if it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. But miraculously, it was exactly the work and even the title I wanted, with a salary right in the middle of my range. It was essentially, a saving grace.

I tell this story not because I think everyone should drop everything and move across the country to pursue their creative dreams. After all, my life now is much more traditionally structured with a 9-5 job and daily responsibilities than it was when I lived in New York. I tell this story because it’s mine and it’s why I believe so strongly in the power of creative dreams. When you trust them, when you put energy towards them, it can change your life.

From Apples to Peaches Part 1: Leaving New York City

“So, what brought you to Atlanta?”

I plaster a benign smile on my face, preparing to answer this question for the umpteenth time. It’s an understandable one, especially for a writer who moved from the creative mecca of New York City to the much smaller pond that is Atlanta, Georgia. But to truly answer that question, I have to take it back, back to a time when I was struggling so hard, I could have been a character in a Lena Dunham show.

The sun streamed through the window of my brownstone apartment in Queens, illuminating my jet-lagged body sprawled across the couch. I was too exhausted to get up, close the curtains and go to bed, too loopy to sleep. St. Patrick’s Day festivities were beginning to rage in the streets outside and I’d just gotten home from China where I’d been visiting one of my oldest friends for a week. After seven days in a foreign country, plus fourteen hours on a plane, it seemed like the perfect time to reevaluate every single one of the life choices that led me to this moment.

I stared out the window at the rooftops stretching into the distance, thinking how much I had wanted this…and how much it kind of really sucked. I was broke, anxious, depressed, and exhausted, sporadically working full time while pursuing a master’s degree and a writing hobby that I secretly wished wasn’t just a hobby. It was less than a week from my twenty-fifth birthday and I was gripped by what I now recognize as a quarter-life-crisis.

I’d experienced something incredible and different in China and started fantasizing about a life that was different. A bolder, more creative life where I traveled the world and wrote about what I saw. I would take lovers and cut the strings that tied me down. I would be a free-spirit, Eat-Pray-Loving my way around the globe. It was exciting and scary but I believed in that moment that it was exactly what I needed. The universe, however, had other plans for me.

Now, I will one hundred percent admit that what I’m about to say sounds woo-woo in the extreme and if that’s not your cup of tea, feel free to skip over it and accept my standard proclamation that I moved to Atlanta because I was sick of New York winters, and desperately needed something different. Those things are true enough that it doesn’t fundamentally alter the story.

But the true truth is that as I sat on that couch, jet-lagged beyond all reason, my brain did a thing. It dropped me into a dreamy scene of a future that I never would have considered otherwise. What I saw in this dream was the kind of domestic life that I would have never guessed I wanted: Husband, kids, house in the suburbs, family barbecues in the backyard. But there was one thing this life had in common with the boldly bohemian one I’d been imagining moments before. For all the traditional domesticity of the scene, I was fulfilling my dream of being a full-time writer.

What struck me most about this bizarre moment wasn’t the woo-woo-ness of it all—though I struggled with what to call this strange vision. The strangest part was the deep tugging in my gut that said unmistakably that I wanted this life. And the place where this cozy scene took place was as obvious to my mind as if it had been written in neon lights: Atlanta. So, as crazy as it seems (and it seems pretty crazy even to me) I left Atlanta to chase this strange dream of a life I’d never known I wanted.